Songs of love & war - Afghan women’s poetry edited by Sayd Bahodine Majrough

It is without question that life for many Pashtun women in Afghanistan is tough. Yet, my instincts as an anthropologist (and African woman) is not to cast them as victims or women in need of rescue. This volume of poetry confirmed that instinct that the ways in which they navigate their male dominated (in public at least) world is much more nuanced.

I hadn’t realised that I was very familiar with Afghan poetry before I started this project to read around the world. Rumi a poet whose works I love and often turn to whenever I am in a heightened emotional state was from Afghanistan. Little did I know that women from the same country had their own formal poetry - partly because around the world women’s works are often written out of history and partly because these landays (as they are called) are part of a great oral as opposed to written tradition.

Sayd Bahodine Majrough - the poet who collected this volume explains in the introduction how each of these two lines (9 syllables and 13 syllables) with clear internal scansion are poems (that are recited by women only) are about love, honour and death. There’s an anthropologist called James Scott who writes about weapons of the weak - the everyday forms of resistance that people undertake against those who hold power. An example I think of is how so often around a manicured piece of grass with designated paths, there will often be a well worn cut through created by people who routinely walk on the part of the grass that is not meant to be walked on. Yes the path makes the journey shorter but is also part of the internal resistance we have to bring forced to made to walk in a particular way/ route. It’s also an anonymous resistance, the park authorities see its effects but can’t pin the actions down to an individual. In fact the existence of the unofficial path speaks to a collective action taken piece by piece by one person or another.

Those paths (which I love) are like these beautiful Afghan landays. They are a common feature of Pashtun life, yet belong to no one and are recognised by all - women and men. That said, Pashtun women are not weak, the book’s introduction speaks of their great physical strength in collecting water, raising children and livestock and carrying out nearly all domestic chores. Their bodies are moulded by the work they do and the commodities their bodies can become - if traded to old men (or children) in marriage.

What cannot be possessed is their love and their earthly desires and so these landays are spoken between women about their lovers. They are frank and open in a way that no self-respecting Pashtun man would dare utter. These words belong to women. These are women’s words. So while Rumi talks of a mystical love, the Pashtun women speak of their lovers and the celebration of nature.

In the examples of the landays given below, I would encourage you to whisper them out loud. The effect of hearing them is quite startling. They may have been composed in bodies that have their work prescribed for them, but they are beautiful words spoken by hearts that dare to be free.

10

If my lover dies, let me be his shroud! Then together we shall wed the dust.

75

Do not hold hold me too closely in your arms, Tomorrow the scent of my necklace will give our secrets away.

80

Pick the flowers by the handful, I am a garden that knows that it belongs to you.